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To War With The Bays: 50 - Feeling Miserable

...I would never have dreamed in a thousand years that on the day we left Algeria I would write in my diary 'Feeling miserable'. It wasn't because we were going to Italy, it was because I was leaving behind part of my life, and 'feeling miserable' was the understatement of the year. This terrible war - friends and loved ones torn apart when would it end?...

Jack Merewood's unit sail off to Italy to rejoin the battle against the Germans.

We had taken Tunis in May 1943, and six weeks later our forces made a landing in Sicily. They crossed the island and went on to invade Italy. We followed their progress as they successfully pushed their way northwards.

The Italians had no heart for fighting, and it was with elation and relief we heard in September 1943 that Italy had surrendered. This could have been the end of the conflict in that country, but the Germans were more motivated and much tougher fighters. We soon realised that they had no intention of following suit.

In November 1943 the advancing army reached Monte Cassino, but here they ran into the most stubborn resistance they were to encounter, and there was a tremendous battle for the town. Then at the end of January 1944 a landing was made at Anzio, thirty miles south of Rome, the idea being to capture the city and link up with the troops driving from the south. The venture failed, for although a beachhead was established and held, our forces were unable to move forward.

At Cassino the Germans had occupied a monastery overlooking the town which they were using as an observation post, to deadly effect. One assault after another was launched on the town with disastrous loss of life, and Cassino was reduced to a mass of rubble. There were naturally reservations about attacking a religious building, but this monastery had been turned into a fortress and there was no way to advance until it had been destroyed.

Our Air Force turned their full power and attention to the task. Day after day the monastery was bombed relentlessly. The Germans stubbornly continued to occupy it, but eventually, after suffering heavy casualties and with the building reduced to a shell, they pulled out, and our army was able to link up with the Anzio forces.

Now we knew why we had been held so long in North Africa. We were there in case we should be needed in Italy. Although our troops were advancing, the defiant German army simply would not give in, and our forces needed more strength and support. This is why the 2nd Armoured Brigade sailed on 25 May, 1944, from Algiers.

I would never have dreamed in a thousand years that on the day we left Algeria I would write in my diary 'Feeling miserable'. It wasn't because we were going to Italy, it was because I was leaving behind part of my life, and 'feeling miserable' was the understatement of the year. This terrible war - friends and loved ones torn apart when would it end?

The Durban Castle was just the opposite of the Talma. She was clean, the food was good, and at any other time this would have been a pleasant journey. The weather was beautiful, so hot and sunny that during the day we played cards and wrote letters up on deck. I wrote to Suzette and M. Hugnit, and also to Marie. At night it was so warm we slept on the deck too.

We followed the North African coast eastwards and then turned north. We had left Algiers on the 25th and docked in Naples harbour on the 27th, but though it was a hot and sunny Naples, my thoughts were in the cool hillsides of Aumale.

After disembarking we had a walk of about eight miles to Afragola on the outskirts of the city, and the camp was swarming with Italians, mostly children, many of them looking ragged and poor, and most of them trying to sell something.

'Cut your hair, soldier?'

'Do your washing, soldier?'

I bought a new pen and a bottle of ink for 150 cigarettes. One young lady was walking about with a tray hanging from a strap round her neck (like an ice-cream seller in a theatre), filled with nuts. Above the rest of the clamour around us we could hear her voice: 'Nuts-a very good. Nuts-a very good. Nuts-a very good.'

One of the boys called her over and said 'No, no. You've got that wrong. It isn't nuts-a very good, it's "Not so very good".'

'Ah, grazia signore,' she said and went on her way shouting 'Not so very good. Not so very good. Not so very good.'

We were surrounded too by dozens of budding Carusos and strains of 'O Sole Mio' floated from every corner of the camp.

Next day was the 28th - Whit Sunday. Only a couple of weeks ago I had drawn a square round day and date, and written 'Aumale!' I started the entry for the 28th: 'Today hoped and expected to be in Aumale but instead I'm here in this camp, in Italy.' I wondered what Suzette was doing and wished so much that I was there with her.

'Harold and I walked the few hundred yards into the town. Plenty people about and very friendly. Feel sorry for the children, they seem so poor. Then hitched ride into Naples.'

Our first impression of Naples was not very good, it seemed dirty and untidy, but the view across the Bay to the Isle of Capri and other islands was fantastic. A small cloud hung in the blue sky over Mount Vesuvius, and we saw plenty of evidence of the recent eruption - black rivers of lava down the mountain side and everywhere thick with dust.

Next morning, after an arms inspection, Stan and I hitched a lift to Pompeii. The truck driver said that a month ago the road we were on, between Vesuvius and the sea, had been two to three feet thick with dust from the eruption.

Pompeii was ' ... a wonderful sight - need a book to mention everything.'

I have been again in recent years, and more of the city is now unearthed, but in 1944 it was much quieter and less commercialised. We had a very good guide, for now the war had moved away it was 'business as usual' for these men, and they bore us no animosity.

As we walked through the ruins it was easy to imagine what a thriving, prosperous, bustling city this must have been before it was disastrously buried in AD 79. The streets, many lined with shops, were well laid out, and some of the houses still had the original paintings on the walls. The amphitheatre was intact, and we walked in the enclosures where the lions and other wild animals had been kept before being turned into the arena. It was a most interesting day.

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